On the final day of his 25-year career in finance, Seth Morgan (’93) texted his longtime friend Mike Barnett (’92) a photo of Mel Gibson delivering his iconic pre-battle speech in Braveheart.
The caption, of course: “FREEDOM!”
Barnett chuckled knowingly at the message from inside Denton County Brewing Co., where he was serving as the operation’s eyes and ears until Morgan declared his William Wallace-esque exit from the corporate world. Nearly two decades earlier, he had similarly come to the realization that he wasn’t cut out for life behind a desk.
“One day on the way to work, I wrecked my brand-new car,” says Barnett, who earned a finance degree from UNT. “I wasn’t even bummed about it because that meant I didn’t have to go into the office.”
Now both men — who, in the nearly 40 years since their friendship was forged as fourth graders at Woodrow Wilson Elementary, have seen each other through graduations, relocations, weddings and parenthood — have come to rely on each other to tackle one of their most unexpected, albeit enjoyable, endeavors: owning their own Denton businesses.
Morgan and his wife Jen (’98) officially opened the doors of Denton County Brewing Co., a craft beer brewery on McKinney Street, nearly two years ago. Barnett — who previously operated the Almost Famous pizza truck outside of DCBC, as well as Pizza Guy, a pizza parlor in Boise, Idaho — recently acquired Denton County Independent Hamburger Co. after its original owner, Kim Kitchens, retired last year.
And while entrepreneurship is no easy task, both agree it’s the right fit.
“I still feel like I’m on vacation,” says Morgan, who on his LinkedIn profile refers to himself as DCBC’s owner, head brewer and chief executive janitor. “Like I’m on some sabbatical, and at any moment, someone’s going to pinch me and tell me I missed a conference call, and I have to shave and put a tie back on.”
Pursuing a passion for food and drink
It was Barnett who found the space that would ultimately become DCBC. After spending three years in New York City and nearly 11 years in Boise, he had recently returned to Denton to be closer to family. On the lookout for the perfect place to open another Pizza Guy, he stumbled across the location on McKinney Street, directly next door to Secondhand Sports. But the building was too big for a pizza joint, so Barnett told Morgan to check it out.
At the time, Morgan had begun mulling the possibility of opening his own brewery. His love for craft beer was ignited in the early 1990s by a study abroad trip to England as a general studies major, which led to him to learn how to home brew. Nearly 20 years later, he applied to brewing school, where the chemistry, physics and microbiology classes he had taken while initially studying engineering and aquatic toxicology at UNT helped him get accepted.
“It took me forever to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” Morgan says. “I kind of backed into what I was doing in the financial world, and it was great — I got a ton of experience. But I always knew I wanted to do something that would allow me to be more creative than I could be in finance, yet continue to be around people. I just needed to find my passion.”
Barnett stepped in to help Morgan oversee the day-to-day operations of DCBC while he wrapped up his remaining responsibilities at his finance job. Once Morgan took over the brewery full time, Barnett — who owned a pizza shop and ran two car washes while living in the Boise area — began considering his next step. Soon after, he heard from a friend that Kitchens was looking to retire and sell Denton County Independent Hamburger Co.
“Growing up, I ate there at least once a week,” Barnett says. “I’ve always loved the product and the system, which is so simple and brilliant. I always thought, ‘This guy has it figured out.’ I was just real honest with him. I said, ‘Look, I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m the perfect guy to take it over. I have the skillset, I’ve lived here, I know people.’ This is a restaurant with a 40-year success story — all I have to do is not screw it up.”
Kitchens was convinced, and in March, Barnett took over. True to his word, he left the Denton County Independent formula intact — the burgers, the fries, the beans, the décor. But he did extend the hours of operation, with the restaurant now closing at 9 p.m.
“I think it’s been serendipitous,” Barnett says. “I wanted to start a pizza chain here, and that never really materialized. But as I’m getting older, I’m getting to where I’m trying to plan my life less and just go with whatever God or the universe or whatever you want to call it is throwing at me. I’m just trying to go with the river instead of swimming up it, like I did for the first 45 years of my life.”
As hometown boys, the only thing bigger than Barnett and Morgan’s passion for food and drink is their love of Denton — and a desire to continue building bonds here.
“I’ve lived here for so long, but now that I own a business, I feel even more like a part of the community,” Morgan says. “We’re part of the Chamber, we’re part of the Main Street Association, we take part in events like Arts and Autos and Jazz Fest and Thin Line. We’re part of everything now, which feels pretty awesome.”
Morgan and Barnett both note that it’s common to run into folks frequenting their establishments with whom they went to middle or high school, or who were fellow classmates at UNT. Before each home football game, Barnett and Morgan’s Lambda Chi Alpha brothers meet for drinks at DCBC.
“I love seeing old classmates,” Morgan says. “They know I’m always here, so they come in all the time.”
It’s no surprise that both consider connecting with others one of the most enjoyable aspects of their jobs, as Morgan and Barnett have long been dedicated to building community, particularly when it comes to philanthropic outreach. Twelve years ago, Morgan co-founded Orant Charities, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for Malawi residents through access to medical clinics, clean water, agriculture and education. Both men are involved with DHS Cares, an organization started by Denton High School grads that provides financial or other assistance to current and former DHS students, faculty and staff and their families in times of medical or other crises. This year, Barnett hosted a fundraiser for DHS Cares at Denton Independent.
“When you do these philanthropic things together, you meet people, make connections, have a good time — there’s so much good that comes out of it,” Morgan says. “And I feel like Denton is such a unique place, and part of the reason we have such a strong community is that everyone cares about each other and wants to give back.”
Morgan and Barnett both say they can’t envision anything better than planting personal and professional roots in Denton — even if it took them awhile to reach that point.
“You know, life can only be understood in reverse, but has to be lived going forward,” Barnett says. “I always thought maybe I should be doing something more traditional or safe, but now I realize I’ve been running from an office job my whole life.”
Morgan couldn’t agree more.
“There’s that old saying,” he says. “If you want God to laugh, just tell him your five-year plan.”